The last time that Nathan Partain checked in, he was purveying crunchy Southern rock and worshipful ballads on Jaywalker. On his new record, Partain has stripped out a large amount of the crunch and embraced delicate acoustic folk almost entirely. The songs still meet the goal of being fit for congregational worship, but A Lovely Wait is a reverent, quietly-intense album much more reminiscent of Rich Mullins’ work or Sufjan’s Seven Swans than a contemporary worship album.
Opener “You Were Not My People” is that rare opener whose instrumentation and lyrics set the stage perfectly for what’s to come in the rest of the album without stealing any of the thunder of the later tracks. The performances are crisp in their precision, but remain delicate: the mellow keys, acoustic guitar, drums, and vocal performances all contribute to this careful tight-rope act. Partain’s voice doesn’t strain or push—instead, he calmly lays out the engaging vocal melody with a female counterpart. The mood this and further pieces create is similar to the quiet awe of Seven Swans, a rare compliment from these parts.
That reverence carries over into the lyrics of “You Were Not My People.” Partain’s words reflect a depth and scope that is also rare in contemporary worship music since the death of Rich Mullins. Instead of focusing on a specific characteristic of God or on worshipers’ response to God, Partain takes listeners on a tour of the whole Bible from God’s perspective: the many ways that people have ignored, turned away from, attacked, and even killed God—and the astoundingly merciful and kind responses that God gives to people in response. The fact that this can happen in under 5 minutes is impressively concise writing. The idea of the song is one that comes from a unique voice in the world of Christian music.
The reverent arrangements and unique lyrical perspective shine throughout the rest of the album. The gentle pitter-patter of “One Thing I Have Asked (Psalm 27)” shows off the instrumental prowess in creating worshipful moods, while “In the Strength You Give” is a spartan tune that accentuates the clear-eyed confessional lyrics. “Deliverance Is a Song of Peace” is a fantastic, expertly-developed folk tune. The catchy “All You Do Is Good” and the folk-rock of “Your Ways” are two tunes that are clearly focused on congregational settings; still, they are both great songs in their own right that don’t fall outside the sonic scope of the album.
While those last two are clearly congregational, it’s a testament to the maturity of Partain’s songwriting that all of these songs work as folk tunes and could clearly work in worship. To then craft and sequence a top-shelf album out of songs that are already serving dual purposes is another challenge that Partain conquers. A Lovely Wait is an impressive acoustic folk album that transcends its place in the Christian music world while still creating music to serve the people of Christ. Highly recommended.
Instead of writing new blurbs for each of these albums, I’m going to let the reviews stand as my comments about each of them except the album of the year. Since I had so many EPs on my EPs of the year list, there are less than my standard 20 albums of the year this year.
Album of the Year: Worn Out Skin – Annabelle’s Curse. (Review) This album came out of nowhere and established itself as a standard component of my listening life. It fits on the shelf right next to Josh Ritter and The Barr Brothers in terms of maturity of songwriting, lyrical depth, beauty, and overall engagement. Each of the songs here have their own charms, which is rare for an album: this one will keep you interested the whole way through. It’s a complete album in every sense of the word, and so it was the easy choice for album of the year.
1. “Bugs” – Patrick James. If you can resist the mopey lyrics, catchy melodies and smooth vocals of an acoustic guitar-toting Australian, you have more strength than me. Sounds kind of like a down-under Passenger with extra indie cred in the arrangements, if you need more motivation.
10. “We Have a Hope” – Nathan Partain. Fresh off the great Jaywalker, Partain drops an intimate, careful, beautiful rumination on hope in the midst of difficulty.
4. “Push and Pull (All the Time)” – Promised Land Sound. Lush, full acoustic-folk sound that calls to mind The Head and the Heart, but with some adventurous instrumental work of their own vintage. Those vocal harmonies, though. Man.
7. “January” – Mia Rose Lynne. There’s always room in my heart for a clean guitar strum, a tender vocal melody, and a swooping violin. This tune is fresh, bright, and charming.
2. “Motion Sick” – Casey Dubie. Dubie’s voice fits perfectly in the adult-alternative space constructed around it. It’s the sort of compelling track that I hate tagging with that genre name, because it’s so tight, evocative, and lively.
5. “Wait” – Lawrence Trailer. Subtle funkiness sneaks its way into this acoustic-led adult alternative track: the bass and vocal performance give the tune a gentle swagger that separates it from the pack.
3. “Long Beach Idyll” – Chris Forsyth & Koen Holtkamp. This meandering acoustic/synth collaboration sounds like some impossible combination of the beach and the desert, with some ’70s psych vibes thrown in. Far out.
8. “Wolvering” – Maiden Radio. Come for the Appalachian folk vibes, stay for the vocals: there’s a vocal surprise early on in this all-female trio’s tune that hooked me.
6. “Solo Sin Tu Amor” – Radio Free Honduras. As Monty Python might say, “And now for something completely different.” This Spanish-language tune uses Latin rhythms, nylon-string melodies, and tropical trumpets to create a smile-inducing, dance-inspiring track. I think this is what Bishop Allen wanted “Like Castanets” to sound like.
9. “Pretty Little Life Form” – Valley Maker. A rumination on life, death, and love in a woodsy, low-slung, minor-key folk environment. It’s got an easygoing flow, amid all that.
11. “Nitetime Moths” – Des Ark. Throw a clarinet at anything in the indie realm and I’m pretty much sold. Aimée Argote’s loud/soft project features the soft side here, singing mesmerizingly over a real piano, tape hiss, and that clarinet. It’s just remarkably pretty.
I rarely go out of my way to comment on the religiosity or lack thereof espoused in the lyrics of the bands I cover here on Independent Clauses. While I’m not quite as agnostic as Switchfoot’s Jon Foreman on whether “Christian music” can exist, I focus pretty heavily on the music at IC. (This decision in and of itself points toward my answer on the question; a deeper philosophical treatise on this issue will have to wait.)
However, it’s almost not possible to talk about Nathan Partain‘s Jaywalker without mentioning that these Southern-rock/folk-oriented tunes are meant to be sung in churches. Partain’s melodic and arranging chops accent but never hinder the ability of these songs to be easily sung by congregations (or people in cars, or walking down the street, etc.).
“I Have Found a Hidden Fountain” opens the record with squalling electric guitar feedback before launching into a full-band Southern-rock vibe, complete with screamin’ organ. After the intro, the band tones it down to feature the dual vocals: Partain’s yearning tenor up front and female vocals supporting with harmonies and tasteful wordless counterpoint. The band doesn’t totally drop out–they merely make way for the vocals to take center stage. This allows the tune to feel tight and real while still leaving the vocal melody easily heard, a trend that continues throughout the album. They get soulful in an instrumental solo section, drop down the volume for dramatic effect, then ramp back up to full weight to close out the tune.
Partain rolls out more Southern rock vibes in follow-up “It’s God Who Saves,” unveiling a nicely arpeggiated lead guitar line on top of more tight band interplay. He also lets his voice get a bit ragged in points, giving the performance a grit that wasn’t present in the more straightforward opener. Even though there’s not as much guitar action in this one, this is a bit more wide-open full-band performance. Partain and co. max out the rock grit with the innocuously-titled “Love is a Gift,” which contains a thunderous guitar riff and roaring vocals in the chorus. (As a result, this is the song that least feels like a congregational possibility.) If you love a bass-heavy Southern rock tune, you should skip straight to this one.
Moving toward the folkier end of the spectrum are tunes like “A Son of God” and “In Tenderness He Sought Me”; these dial back the electric firepower and lean heavily on the polished, evocative vocal melodies. The former includes swinging syncopation that makes it straight-up fun to sing; the latter gives Sarah Partain a verse, and her gentle, affectionate alto softens the already-sweet tone of the tune. “Hold Thou My Hand” is a stark, vulnerable piano ballad whose lyrics and melodies helped develop a catch in my throat by the end.
The most intriguing two songs on the record transcend tunes identifiable by genre labels: “Jesus Is Mine” and “He Was Wounded” invert generic stereotypes to create unique tunes. “Jesus Is Mine” opens with heavy-handed piano whacks and insistent bass thump, then splays out into a vaguely minor-key jam: the piano goes all saloon, Partain distorts his “oh-oh” vocals in the verse breaks, and the guitar wails in engaging ways. It’s not your average Southern-rock jam. Ominous isn’t the right word for a worship song, but whoa. “He Was Wounded” uses organ and delicate clean electric guitar to open in an almost ambient drone; there’s a spacious, elegant, cathedral-esque glamour to the tune that doesn’t draw its strength only from the gentle reverb. It’s quiet and tense without being a solo acoustic performance, something that isn’t so common in folk (with the strong exception of the Barr Brothers).
Jaywalker is a powerful album of Southern rock and acoustic-folk tunes that slots nicely next to bands like Hiss Golden Messenger, Megafaun, and Jason Isbell. Because of its roots, you can sing along every single tune (a highlight in my eyes!). On top of that, the arrangements are tight and finely calibrated to make the songs work right. I’ve been listening to it for weeks and haven’t gotten tired yet. Highly recommended.
Stephen Carradini and Lisa Whealy write reviews of instrumental, folk, and singer/songwriter music. We write about those trying to make the next step in their careers and established artists.